Central Asia has looked with alarm to the events in Ukraine, where massive protests have led to the overthrow of a Kremlin-backed dictator and the subsequent Russian invasion of Crimea. The region’s autocrats are worried by the fact that street protests were able to oust a strongman in a fellow ex-Soviet state. At the same time, Russia's heavy-handed intervention in a former Soviet republic has unsettled Central Asians, who see themselves as Moscow’s next potential target.
Russia’s move in Crimea is especially salient for Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population concentrated on the country’s border with Russia. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has maintained good relations with Moscow, and ethnic Russians generally support him, believing his strong rule has tamped down Kazakh nationalism. But Nazarbayev is 73 years old and has no clear plan of succession. If more-nationalist forces took power after Nazarbayev departs the scene, it could create tension with Moscow and with Kazakhstan’s Russians—a situation parallel to that in Ukraine.
Kazakhstan’s concerns about Russia’s designs on its territory were reinforced by nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who on Feb. 23 called for Russia to annex Central Asia to form a “Central Asian Federal Region” within Russia. Although Zhirinovsky’s remarks weren’t a statement of Russian policy, and he frequently says similarly provocative things, Astana issued an official response objecting to the comments.